Tales from the History of Sauna

 

This page is about the glorious global history of sweat bathing.  Use this page to further your knowledge about sauna and steam to become a better Saunatarian.

The more you know, the more you can educate others.  The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy each sweat!

 

Bathing is a basic requirement of human survival – and very recently in human history, bathing was a largely public activity.  Although today we have remnants such as beaches and public swimming pools, these are now a leisure activity and not a physiological requirement.  These changes are described nowhere better that Sigfried Giedion’s remarkable survey of “the mechanization of the bath” in his mighty tome, Mechanization Takes Command: a contribution to anonymous history (Oxford University Press 1948).  (Currently there’s a copy here – see pp. 627-712).

BUT – SOMETHING TO POINT OUT: not all bathing is sweat bathing.  In fact, when people talk about “the history of bathing”, or even things like “the roman baths”, this usually refers to traditional forms of hot and cold water-bathing – a ubiquitous human activity.  These traditions themselves are fascinating, especially when seen through the lens of something like Russell Trall’s wide-ranging book The Hydropathic Encyclopedia (New York 1856; 2 vols).

But of course our interest here at The Saunatarian is sweat bathing.  In the nineteenth century the common term for sauna was a “vapor bath” (which is technically more correct than “steam bath”, because steam is invisible and vapour is the actual mist.  See here for more on that distinction.)

This is important to note, because even someone like Giedion treats sweat bathing amongst other types of bathing, somewhat diluting focus on the specific culture of sauna and steam.  And while something like Mikkel Aaland’s classic book Sweat (1978) gives impressive coverage, there’s always room for more.

Therefore, Tales from the History of Sauna will compile all manner of stories from the global history of sweat bathing.  Expect the following in upcoming posts:

  • A full review of Sigfried Giedion’s history of “the mechanization of the bath” from ancient times through to industrialization (pp. 627-712 of Mechanization Takes Command)
  • A short essay on sweat culture in Medieval Europe
  • A review of Malcolm Shifrin’s fascinating new book Victorian Turkish Baths (2015)
  • … and a look at one of the earliest written testimonies about sweat bathing from the ancient Mediterranean.

 

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